What Happens When You Combine Media Frenzy and Block Research

Stem cell research in the US has been both promising and crippled. The potential outcomes of what could one day be possible with stem cells has been the focus of a media frenzy for the past two decades, leading most lay people to believe that we have already figured it out by now, and that all you need to do is inject some stem cells at the site of an injury and voila! Magic happens!

At the same time, stem cells have been the focus of great ethical controversy, one that stems from religiosity and scientific ignorance, leading to the crippling of the progression of stem cell research in many parts of the country (and the world, for that matter), particularly during the Bush Administration, which means that the scientific research lags far behind the expectations of the public. This is a very dangerous combination.

 

Patients seeking stem cell therapies for achy joints or shoulder injuries no longer need to hop a plane to Mexico or China. More than 550 clinics around the U.S. offer unproved interventions for sports injuries and conditions including autism, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

This vast stem cell market has boomed in recent years, particularly for orthopedic applications such as easing joint pain or for facelifts and other cosmetic procedures. In one frequently advertised regimen a patient might have adult stem cells harvested from his own fat tissue and injected at an injury site, purportedly to speed recovery. Professional athletes including football stars Peyton Manning and Chris Johnson have reportedly used stem cell injections to help them get back onto the field.

Yet there is a darker side to the promise of these treatments. There is little systematic data about patients’ long-term outcomes—positive or negative—and in most cases there is no scientific evidence that these costly procedures work. Many of these cellular therapies may not do much of anything but there is also the serious risk that recipients of cell injections could develop serious complications “including blood clots or dangerous immune reactions,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine

 

These clinics are trying to circumvent the law, by claiming that they are eligible for an FDA approval exemption. That should be a red flag right there, and another one is the fact that they advertise directly to the public, and also profess to be able to treat children with cerebral palsy and autism. Desperate parents have always been a fountain of cash for con artists (Burzynski clinic, anyone?)

Skeptics need to be wary of these kinds of places, even more so than you odd alternative medicine retreats that claim that meditation and talking to dolphins will clean out your shakras and cure your lower back pain, or whatever such nonsense. These clinics have the facade of genuine science to hide behind, and rely on ignorance of current scientific progress to dupe patients into believing that these treatments are safe, effective and have been around for ages. The stem cell media frenzy has only helped them along in this regard.

Bad scientific reporting bears a large part of the responsibility as well, of course. But we also need to not fear pointing out this quackery just because, in different contexts, we happen to fully support stem cell research. This kind of quackery is far too dangerous to ignore.

 

 

Cultural Differences: Let’s Talk About Poop

Everybody poops. This is a fact, and there are the kids books to prove it. However, despite the ubiquity of this bodily function, admitting that everybody poops, and talking about it, is one of the starkest cultural differences I noticed when living abroad.

In Italy, everyone believes (especially women) that they are a doctor. When it comes to medical things, there is nothing too disgusting, or too taboo to talk about amongst your friends. Your pooping habits are no exception, and are discussed freely even amongst people you don’t know very well at all. The topic might come up the way that the weather might come up. Even when I was living in Padova, and working with a very shy and conservative technician, who would never discuss anything even tangentially sex-related for fear of shaming herself, would occasionally walk in to work and say “Hi! Sorry I’m late. I had a little diarrhea this morning and I thought it best to wait and make sure that it wouldn’t happen again. I’m fine now, though, so problem solved! Anyway, that’s why I’m late.” As long as it’s medical, it is a topic of discussion, and no one will fault you for bringing it up, and will often jump in the conversation with questions as to why you think you had the diarrhea, how often it happens, and suggestions as to what you could do to prevent it. “Oh, have you tried Immodium? I find that works best for me.” “Oh no, last time I took Immodium it went too far and blocked me up for three days! Tea with lemon works fine for me most of the time…”

That was the culture that I grew up in, and moving to Ireland taught me very quickly to shut up about it.

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No Shit! The NY Times Almost Got it Right!

I work in an institute that specializes in neurodegenerative diseases. My mother knows this, and is fully scientifically illiterate, but will still send me the odd article which states “fascinating” and “provocative” findings, only to find that they either completely butchered the study, or were not even referring to a real scientific study at all. So, when she sent me a New York Times article entitled “Could Alzheimer’s Stem From Infections? It Makes Sense, Experts Say” I groaned, rolled my eyes and read on.

Score one for the NY Times, they actually linked the article! It usually takes me hours to find the original publication that everyone is referring to in the news. And, it’s published in Science. OK, I’m listening now. What does the article actually find?

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Oreos Are Vegan…

…And now I don’t want to eat them anymore.

This pronouncement made many of my friends laugh. I am not vegan, I am not vegetarian, and because of this I have gotten into many debates with people over nutrition. Veganism and vegetarianism are very, very hot topics right now. It seems that the new, trendiest thing is to either be vegan (or at least vegetarian), or aspire to be so while admitting to a deep character weakness in your inability to become one. Unfortunately, biology is clear that veganism is not the ultimate in healthy eating for humans to aspire to, and my holding this anti-trendy position has garnered me a lot of heat in recent years. No doubt this post (if read widely enough) will get me heated comments about how very wrong I am to say such things as well.

However, the reason I am writing this post has little to do with my thoughts on veganism itself. My friends laughed at me because, given my anti-trendy stance on veganism, it sounded like I was having a knee-jerk reaction to everything that is associated with the lifestyle. Like I was saying “eww, that’s vegan? I don’t want to accidentally eat anything that’s vegan! Wrap all my food in BACON!”

The fact is, many of my meals happen to be vegan friendly. I make my mashed potatoes with olive oil instead of butter, I eat a lot of vegan curries, I love lentil soup and I’m a fan of Nakd bars. I do not strive to ensure that all of my meals contain animal products. I bring this up not as a rant against all things vegan, but rather as a point as to how nutrition trends can obscure what is actually healthy.

As of now, I see more and more people associating “vegan” with “healthy”. While some vegan dishes are undoubtedly healthy, it doesn’t mean that anything that is vegan is necessarily so. In the case of oreos, the fact that they are vegan might, ironically, indicate that they are even less healthy than I initially thought.

Oreos are supposed to be cream-filled cookies. Cookies themselves are usually made with some animal products, and cream fillings definitely are. If the cookie has no eggs or butter in it, and the cream filling contains no dairy products, then what the hell are they made of? Even worse, Oreos were never marketed as a convenient vegan substitute for cookies, they accidentally happen to be vegan. While we all know that Oreos are overly processed food, the knowledge that they contain no animal products without even the intent to target a specific market fills me with dread. What kind of disgusting crap are they putting into these cookies?

My point is that it is easy, but deceptive to make blanket associations. Vegan does not necessarily mean healthy. Gluten-free, sugar-free or fat-free also does not necessarily mean healthy. Nutrition is so much more complicated than that. Products that are highly processed are far less likely to be good for you. Ironically, if you made a homemade Oreo with eggs, butter and cream (as Thor intended) it would most likely be better for you, despite all the devilish animal products in it, than your vegan store-bought variety.

Try to look past the labels. If you really want to lead a healthy lifestyle, reaching for packets of “natural”, “vegan” or “fat-free” products at your local supermarket is most likely not going to be enough. Nutrition trends exist because everyone wants to eat all the delicious stuff without suffering the health or girth consequences of those choices, nor do they want it to be as complicated as it is. Unfortunately, trends are exploited for marketing purposes, and no trend will easily lead you to a healthy life and trim waist.

As to my scientific reasons behind my thoughts on veganism itself? That is for another post, if anyone is actually interested in what the science has to say about it. The point I am making here is: lay off the Oreos. They may be vegan, but that doesn’t mean they’re not pure crap.

Not Just A Women’s Issue

Women’s issues are, and should be getting more attention and action. However, given the fact that patriarchal societies still carry with them a toxic masculinity which makes anything associated with women something shameful or embarrassing for men to admit to being a part of, it is important to not “gender” certain issues. One of these issues is breast cancer, and in Australia, they are finally realizing that these “pink” campaigns are marginalizing male victims of this disease.

Although breast cancer is usually seen as a woman’s disease, around 145 Australian men were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, and around 25 died from it. A little under 1% of all breast cancers occur in men, so it is more common than most people think.

However, breast cancer in men is often diagnosed when larger and at a more advanced stage than in women. This is probably because it is not recognised for what it is, or perhaps because there remains considerable stigma around male breast cancer.

Part of the delay in identifying breast cancer symptoms could relate to men’s reluctance to seek medical care in general. However, there are likely to be specific additional issues related to malignancy in an organ that men are not meant to have and may feel embarrassed or in denial about.

Stigma is likely exacerbated by our many “pink” campaigns to raise breast cancer awareness and improve outcomes for women.

A two-pronged attack is needed to combat this issue: attack the stigma associated with anything considered too “feminine”, and spread awareness that this affects men too.

I recently posted a snarky video out of Argentina which used male breasts to spread awareness about how to check yourself for breast cancer, given the fact that female nipples are too “obscene” to be viewed on social media. Looks like this video is even more useful than I initially thought: men need to learn how to check for the signs too.

 

Bad Science: When There Is No Science At All

Note: this is a post from the old blog, but one that I think can spark an interesting discussion. Also, I am aware that National Geographic has been sold out, but this post was written well before that.

rhinoI have to admit I do enjoy National Geographic. Sure some of the articles can be a little wishy-washy, but the pictures are stunning and it definitely keeps my attention and keeps me company far more than any “women’s” magazine ever would (no, I could give a shit if those are Angelina Jolie’s real boobs, and if she has an eating disorder it is none of my business). This month, however, when flipping through I came across an article that bothered me called Rhino Wars.

rhinowarsThe article talks about the illegal trade in rhino horn from Africa to Asia, where it is rumored to have medicinal properties ranging from fever reducing properties to a cure for cancer. Despite the lack of scientific peer-reviewed evidence, many people believe in this and even doctors suggest it as a possible treatment for cancer.

Because of this demand, poachers have driven all five species of rhino onto the Endangered Species List, selling the horn for up to twice its weight in gold. This has also led to entrepreneurs trying “rhino farming”, where they keep the animals alive and sever their horns two-three inches above the base, which ensures its re-growth within a few years (unlike elephants, rhinos can survive perfectly well without their horns). While it doesn’t seem like an optimal solution, the argument for rhino farming is that it makes for competition for poachers (who kill the rhino before severing its horn) and is a good way to ensure the species’ survival. However, there is one big glaring problem that this NatGeo article completely fails to mention:

What about the millions of people that are duped into paying a fortune for something that most likely doesn’t work?

This is where the lack of science becomes incredibly bad science. A search through the literature on this subject has led me to only two studies, from the 1990s, on the effects of rhino horn on hypothermic rats. OK, so it seems as though they have been published in an actual journal with an actual Impact Factor, which is a good start. Unfortunately I cannot access the full article in order to take a good look at their methods, but here is an excerpt from one of the abstracts:

Intraperitoneal administration of an aqueous extract of rhinoceros horn at 5 2.5 and 1 g/ml, showed a significant antipyretic effect in rats with hyperthermia induced by subcutaneous injection of terpentine oil. Similar assays with extracts of the horns of saiga antelope, water buffalo and cattle at 5 g/ml also caused a significant drop in fever

Let’s say for the sake of argument that this is true, and that this effect translates over to humans. So rhino horn reduces fever, so what? So does paracetamol. We already have drugs that do this. Also notice that cattle horn has the same effect. Well, if you have to use some kind of horn, why not use one from an animal that is already farmed and has the same effect?

Here’s the problem, I cannot find a single peer-reviewed paper on the effects of rhino horn on cancer treatment. So what the hell are we waiting for?!

Although I highly doubt that rhino horn will have anti-cancer properties, I have explained again and again that not thinking something likely is no reason to not investigate it. There are doctors that are suggesting this, there need to be studies done. If one, two, three studies are done that show no health benefits, these results need to be plastered in these doctors’ faces and all over the news, only that way can we have any hope of educating people and getting them to devote their efforts to other, tried and tested treatments, possibly saving lives. You want to save the rhino and decrease poaching? Start by decreasing the demand.

And what if these studies demonstrate that rhino horn actually does have an anti-cancer effect? Well great! We can start looking for the active ingredient in the rhino horn so that it can be purified in the lab.

If it turns out that rhino horn does aid in cancer treatment then maybe I’ll be in favor of expanding and trading from rhino farms, at least until scientists are able to identify and replicate the compound that has these medicinal properties. But, until then, I think that rhino farming is a terribly flimsy band-aid over this festering problem.

By supporting rhino farming you are supporting financial interests in keeping the rhino horn trade alive. You may decrease the poaching and black market trade a little, but you are supporting people that do not want it to get out that rhino horn doesn’t have the medicinal benefits people think, because that would hurt sales. I know that there are going to be people that believe in traditional medicine no matter what, but to think that education could not make a huge dent is ridiculous. You only have to look at the past hundred years to see how this is not the case.

The fact of the matter is that, while NatGeo is right to point out the lives of rhino’s that are being saved, they fail to make the more obvious point. It is not just rhinos that are losing lives in this “war”, it is countless sick, desperate humans that are losing their lives as well.

I’ll Take The Truth

I only read until the end of this meme because it was posted by a source that I know doesn’t abide by this miracle cure, alternative medicine bullshit. I’m glad I did.

 

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If I only had 18 months to live, I’d probably rather be high, find amusement in my morning piss, and a mad hankering after pizza rolls than wallowing in self pity. But at least I would know that was what I was doing, and I’d always rather take the truth over false hope.

There is medicine that works, and medicine that doesn’t work. There is also a fun way to go out, and a not so fun way to go out. I do not begrudge anyone the right to ease their suffering in their last moments, which is one of the reasons why I think that cannabis should be available to anyone with a terminal disease, not because I think it will miraculously cure them, but because it will make it that much easier to get through, and who the fuck has the right to deny that to anyone.

Well, I just took a meme that was meant to be amusing far too seriously, but sometimes it has to be said.

Just because cannabis is not a miracle cure for every disease on the planet, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be legal for anyone who wants to remember what it’s like to just want some damn pizza rolls.

And, of course, call out these peddlers of woo and false hope for the con artists that they are. But that was the whole point of the meme anyway.

Genius

I have written before, and I am sure that many of you agree, that I think the ban on women’s nipples is quite ridiculous. Apart from being ridiculous, it can be harmful in a variety of different ways, one of which being in the limiting of how far one can spread informative videos on how to check yourself for breast cancer. One group in Argentina has found a hilarious way to get around this problem.

 

Important, informative, snarky and funny. Just my kind of video.

Does It Still Count As Parody…

When it pretty much states the truth of the matter quite plainly?

As a mother, I put my parenting decisions above all else. Nobody knows my son better than me, and the choices I make about how to care for him are no one’s business but my own. So, when other people tell me how they think I should be raising my child, I simply can’t tolerate it. Regardless of what anyone else thinks, I fully stand behind my choices as a mom, including my choice not to vaccinate my son, because it is my fundamental right as a parent to decide which eradicated diseases come roaring back.

The decision to cause a full-blown, multi-state pandemic of a virus that was effectively eliminated from the national population generations ago is my choice alone, and regardless of your personal convictions, that right should never be taken away from a child’s parent. Never.

Aren’t parodies supposed to deliberately exaggerate or overstate a claim? This seems pretty spot-on to me, actually.

Bad Science: Urine Therapy

Note: post from the old blog, slightly edited. The first of a new segment to come: bad science. Any suggestions for things you know, or suspect of being bad science are welcome in the comments section.

I get asked a lot of questions about strange alternative therapies quite often, and this is one that has been on my radar for a while now. People who drink their own urine for therapeutic reasons. Gross right? Well, yes, but that’s hardly the reason why I’m going to call it out now. My father drank a cup of horse blood every day for two weeks after a terrible car crash left him very dangerously anemic in order to get his iron levels back up, and that’s pretty disgusting too, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work. I’m going after urine therapy for the two most important, fundamental reasons:

1. It doesn’t make any sense
2. There is no scientific evidence for it

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